Ancient History & Civilisation


While the refoundation of Carthage undoubtedly represented the most dramatic testament to the reinstatement of concord in Rome by the Augustan regime, a far more striking but less celebrated monument to the gradual development of a rapprochement between Rome and its North African subjects was being constructed almost contemporaneously several hundred kilometres to the east. In 8 BC Hannibal, a wealthy citizen and former chief magistrate of Leptis Magna in Libya, commemorated the construction of a public building put up at his own expense with a long inscription on thirty-one carved blocks. Part of this inscription was written in Punic, the language that still predominated among the inhabitants of the Libyan seaboard, but the remainder of the text was in Latin. Further evidence of the syncretism that had begun to take place between Punic and Latin cultures can be seen in the nomenclature of the benefactor. Although his personal name was Punic, his local family name had been adapted to Tapapius, to make it sound more Roman. His third name, Rufus, was a purely Roman invention.

Even more striking is the substance of the text, in which the Roman emperor Augustus was honoured with his official Roman titles, all carefully rendered both in Latin and in Punic (and not simply transliterated). Hannibal Tapapius Rufus, moreover, proudly proclaimed his role as a priest in the cult of Augustus. This inscription is not a strange anomaly, but merely one of the earliest of a number of often bilingual epigraphic monuments that both highlight the increasingly important contribution of North African elites to the political, economic and cultural life of the Roman Empire and simultaneously proclaim continued local pride in Punic heritage.64 That gradual integration was expressed also in Tapapius’ self-description as ‘Lover of Concord’, an epithet which resonated both with the imperial rhetoric of his Roman masters and with his Punic inheritance. ‘Lover of Concord’ had been used as a title by North African elites for centuries.

For the elites who continued to dominate the old Punic cities of the central and western Mediterranean, there appears to have been no sense that their venerable ethnic inheritance and membership of the Roman Empire were in any way incompatible.65 In North Africa and Sardinia, Punic and neo-Punic continued as spoken and written languages at least until the fourth century AD, and were used by all social classes. Moreover, traditional deities such as Astarte, Baal Hammon and Tanit were still worshipped, and the chief magistrates continued to be called suffetes until at least the second century AD.66

The sacred rites that had been performed in tophets across the Punic world also continued, although lambs were now used as sacrificial substitutes for children. It has sometimes been argued that the persistence of Punic traditions in places like Sardinia should be read as a sign of ‘silent resistance’ to Roman rule. The Punic testimonies of Hannibal Tapapius Rufus and others like him, however, show that such traditions might serve also as a medium through which Punic people could assert their membership of the Roman Empire.67 Indeed, throughout the first and second centuries AD, the cities of North Africa and their inhabitants were some of the most upwardly mobile in the empire. Ambitious local families began to establish themselves in Italy, where they bought up estates with the vast wealth generated by trade and agriculture, while their sons began to establish themselves among the Roman senatorial elite. Moreover, cities such as Leptis Magna were steadily granted enhanced status by a series of Roman emperors, often leading to the status of colony and the bestowal of Roman citizenship on all of their citizenry.68

Despite the political and cultural integration of North Africa within the Roman Empire, therefore, the legend of Hannibal’s resistance to Rome continued to exercise the minds of educated Romans, a testament not only to its power, but also to its impact upon the Roman consciousness. The Roman senator Silius Italicus, who wrote in the reign of the emperor Domitian (AD 81—96), thus wrote an enormously long epic on the Punic Wars, the Punica, in which he tellingly felt compelled to emphasize the enmity that the god/hero Hercules felt for Hannibal (particularly after the latter’s decision to break faith with the Romans and attack Saguntum).69 The Roman poet Statius indeed imagined that a statuette of Hercules owned by a friend had once been in the possession of Hannibal, but presents the hero less as a divine companion than as a resentful hostage, forced to accompany Hannibal in the form of this statuette. Rather than favour its cause, Hercules despises Carthage for its vicious assault upon Italy.70

Statius was nevertheless aware that times had changed. Perhaps conscious of the dangerous associations which might be made between his new epic Hannibal and the North African elites gaining influence at Rome, the poet reminded his Libyan-born friend Septimius Severus of his Roman credentials:

Your speech is not Punic, nor your dress;

Your mind not foreign–you are Italian, Italian!71

What neither the poet nor his friend could have known was that Septimius’ grandson and namesake Lucius Septimius Severus would in AD 193 become the first African emperor of Rome. Although they were perhaps too wise to mention it, the more educated of his subjects are unlikely to have missed the fact that the new emperor had won the throne only after embarking with his army on an epic march of some 1,000 kilometres from the Danube to Rome.72 When he later reburied the remains of Hannibal in a mausoleum of fine white marble, it became obvious not only whom the new Roman emperor had taken as his model, but also how far the Carthaginians had come.73

Carthage featured prominently in Roman literature and history throughout antiquity, with successive generations of writers continuing to imbue the Roman city with the same sort of menace and antagonism that had been associated with its Punic predecessor.74Equally, the Roman lionization of Hannibal as a hero persisted, to the extent that the nephew of Constantine, the first Christian emperor of Rome, in the fourth century AD, was called Flavius Hannibalianus.75

It is impossible to assess the debt that Rome owed to Carthage with the same confidence as for the debt to Greece. We can clearly trace the impact of Greek art, science, literature etc. on Roman culture: indeed, educated Romans were often happy to acknowledge that influence. Carthage, however, was afforded no such place in the Roman cultural canon. This had little to do with any lack of originality, but was at least partly the result of the phenomenal success that the Greeks had in claiming sole ownership of advances that had in fact been the result of centuries of exchange and cross-fertilization. The cultural marginalization of Carthage was a Greek achievement the city’s destruction a Roman one.

Carthage did, however, play an important a role in the development of the Roman Empire. Rome hugely benefited from the appropriation of the economic and political infrastructure that Carthage had previously put in place in the central and western Mediterranean. In Sardinia, Sicily, North Africa and Spain, the Romans inherited not wild, virgin lands, but a politically, economically and culturally joinedup world which was Carthage’s greatest achievement.

Less tangible, but equally important, was the key role that Carthage played in the creation of a Roman national character. The brutal destruction of the city gave the Romans the freedom to transform Carthage into the villainous antitype against which the ‘Roman’ virtues of faithfulness, piety and duty could be applauded. As long as the Romans needed proof of their greatness, the memory of Carthage would never die.

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